Surviving the War and Living Again

Anne Marie Toccket, Research Unplugged intern
November 02, 2005

The best of modern poetry is struck from "the things that [are] troubling the world," says Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. "When words cannot express the pain, that's when poetry becomes easy."

Jabbeh Wesley, an acclaimed poet and an assistant professor of English at Penn State Altoona, presented Wednesday's Research Unplugged conversation, titled "Surviving the war and living again: A Liberian poet's story." Mixing vivid recollections with the reading of her poems, she painted colorful and deeply moving images of her life in violence-torn Liberia.

Born in the village of Tugbakeh, Jabbeh Wesley soon moved with her family to the capital city of Monrovia, where she was raised and attended school. Drawn to poetry as a young girl, she was memorizing the works of European masters by the age of 14. At her father's insistence, she eventually attended graduate school—in the United States, at the University of Indiana in Bloomington—and received a master's degree in English Education before returning to her native country.

As Jabbeh Wesley began to speak, the crowd of about 40 seemed to have no trouble imagining the life that she described. With a husband and children, a home in the suburbs of Monrovia surrounded by coconut trees, and a respected teaching position at the university there, she had achieved her dreams. "We were what you would call affluent people," she said.

One day, however, the radio reports turned ominous. The rebel forces that had long plagued the countryside were approaching the capital. Soon Jabbeh Wesley's comfortable life was invaded by civil war.

"Imagine if you dropped your children off for school and went to work. Then you heard that your town had been completely destroyed in just a few hours," she said. "You want to go back and find your children, but you are told not to. If they live, maybe you will find them someday."

Eventually, Jabbeh Wesley and her family were forced to flee their home and live in refugee camps. The life they had built was gone forever. "On my birthday one year," she remembered, "I was crying and crying in a camp. I couldn't stop. Then I said, 'Wake up! Why am I crying?' I had lived to see another year. I was lucky."

Jabbeh Wesley said it was precisely this attitude that enabled her to survive the maelstrom of killing, rape, and constant gunfire that surrounded her.

"To be a survivor, you've got to have faith," she emphasized. "I knew we were not going to die."

She and her family did survive, but the indelible images of a civil war that killed 150,000 civilians remain with her. "My father was forced to choose whether the rebels would kill my foster brother or my whole family," she remembered. "The rebels shot my brother right there in front of him."

Finally, in 1991, Jabbeh Wesley and her family were able to leave the country with help from the United States State Department. She and her family settled in Kalamazoo, Mich., where she learned "to wipe dry" her tears while the war continued to rage in her homeland. She began to rebuild her life piece by piece. She received her Ph.D from Western Michigan University in 2002 and joined the Penn State faculty in September 2005.

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English at Penn State Altoona, pjw14@psu.edu. Her books of poetry include Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (1998) and Becoming Ebony (2003).

Last Updated November 02, 2005